Chekhovian philosophical debates filter through complex characters in Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magnificent Winter Sleep. Like any film in the director’s oeuvre, the storytelling process is crucial. Here, adapting the Russian author’s work into a geographical setting much more familiar to him was an intuitive task.
“The process was not really clear to me,” he explains. “There is no formula. You just do everything you can. If you connect with the story deep enough, transforming it to any format should not be that difficult. The important thing to keep in mind is that if you are departing from literature, you should be open to a lot of change because literature and cinema are very different mediums.”
For instance, the substantial and gripping dialogue required a unique symbiosis between the filmmaker, his wife, Ebru Ceylan, and the literary works. He adds: “The lines in this film are a mixture of original dialogues from the stories and those we wrote. We tried to make them as interwoven and fluent as possible. It was tiring, but very rewarding.”
Set in the majestic Cappadocia Mountains of Anatolia, Turkey, Winter Sleep was not originally supposed to sport such breathtaking landscapes. Says the Palme d’Or-winning Ceylan, “I did not want Cappadocia at first. I thought it would be too interesting or too exotic. But for some practical reasons, we ended up choosing it as our location. Once selected, we had to modify the script to create harmony between the place and the story.”
Using this stunning region as the main locale created an element of melancholy that relates to the characters’ state of mind. He adds, “When something very important happens in our personal life, the world begins to be seen as a different place, even if nothing actually changes. To create it visually, it was very important to have the snow everywhere at that point in the film. When Aydin leaves the house for Istanbul that early morning, the world should be seen completely different by the audience as well.”
Ceylan’s fondness for utilizing the natural world as a dramatic device is apparent throughout his work. Films such as the aptly titled Climates or Distant are very effective at this. He notes, “We know that the seasons and atmospheric conditions influence our psychology a lot. And I feel that life is more meaningful if the atmospheric conditions make themselves known. Why not use this as a narrative element in our films?”
The ancient snowy steppes set the stage for the human drama, but Ceylan and longtime cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, paid more attention to charting their story’s interior spaces. Through intimately lit, Caravaggesque scenes set in the fictional Anatolian Hotel Othello, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) deliver languorously paced moral expositions that reach a transcendent, epic pitch.
“I wanted warm, dark, and intimate atmospheres in the rooms, opposing the cold and bright outdoors,” says Ceylan. “Some of the interiors were filmed on location, others in a studio for better lighting control.”
The resulting aesthetic achieved throughout the 196-minute film is nothing short of masterful. When asked about the inspiration for this marvelous visual approach, the director attributed it to his personal experience, “It may be something coming from my urban childhood days. I still remember the strong feelings coming from the contrast between the safe and warm indoors and the cold and sinister outdoors: the light of the village fireplace, the sound of the stove, and the wind shaking the old rotten windowpanes.”
Ceylan’s technical preferences are guided by the balance between thematic sophistication, and on-set practicality, “Over time, I have grown to like simpler shots. I prefer using basic lenses, close to 50mm; between 35mm and 85mm. Maybe it’s because as the complexity of the content of the film increases, it forces you, in a way, to decrease the stylistic complexity? I’m not that specific as some great directors are who only use 50mm, but I like to be modest and simple in technical terms.”
“That’s not to say that I’m not trying to find some innovative narrative elements within visual simplicity. For Winter Sleep in particular, I had to be a little more conventional in style to be able to make the long and literary dialogues work.” For the lead role of Aydin, a wealthy man who aspires to become a writer, the director found the perfect match in veteran Turkish thespian Haluk Bilginer. “He is a perfect actor who was always in my mind during the screenwriting process. It was very easy to work with him since he is so talented and incredibly flexible like a rubber and without any ego. Besides, I like his vast scale of expressions and the tone of his voice. What else can I ask for? “
Despite careful plans for shooting, Ceylan fervently believes in the ultimate power of editing. “Human nature is so complex that it’s not easy to be sure how we will behave in certain situations. It’s better not to trust your intuitions much during filming or screenwriting. That’s why I shoot alternatives. I try to create a psychological balance and precision in the editing—the only time you can be sure of something.”
Imbued with riveting dialogue, captivating imagery, and perfect pacing, Winter Sleep is Ceylan’s vision of the world. And at center stage, the class struggle and disparity between opulence and poverty. Says Ceylan, “Class conflicts have lots of consequences, which really affect my heart deeply. My whole life, in the countryside and in the city, has passed with thousands of these heartbreaking details. I always try to place them in my films here and there, but even more so this time.”
Reaching this level of artistic maturity takes time and Nuri Bilge Ceylan has continuously dared his audiences to immerse themselves in his character-driven stories and evolve with him. As his latest film shows, all of his cinematic powers are at play, the essence of identity indelibly reflected in every frame—the riveting spell of Winter Sleep. MM
Winter Sleep is now playing in theaters in select cities and opens nationwide this Friday, January 16, courtesy Adopt Films.